He’s 48, but everything about his countenance and energy cries out 7 or 8 years-old. His face is a train wreck of rage, shame, and humiliation. A melting candle wax of self-loathing drips down his body language. His lip trembles and tears fill his eyes, like a boy will do when his mother or father shames and criticizes him for breaking a dish on the kitchen floor.
He’s afraid of his boss. And the shame he feels about being afraid is almost more than he can bear. And he’s at a total loss about why he’s so paralyzed and cowering in this relationship. Why he freezes like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming semi-truck.
“It’s not like I respect her. Not like I need her approval,” he argues aloud with himself.
And I think to myself, “Hmm, yet your reaction is like that of a man whose very LIFE depends on this boss’s approval.”
A common crisis (or at least mini-crisis) in adult patients in therapy is regression. Put simply, regression is what happens when, in certain relationships, especially in relationships with people in authority, otherwise normal and sane adults will spontaneously lose their grip on their “adult self.” They suddenly float back to a world where they are the child. Powerless. Helpless. Under attack with not an advocate in sight.
And, like an abused or disrespected child is wont to do, the adult coughs up his/her soul. Passively lays their very dignity and self-respect on the altar of sacrifice to appease the god of Displeased Critical Authority Figures.
It’s a terrible, terrible trade. And oh so painful. If you don’t know what’s happening, it feels like you might be going crazy. It’s like being forced to disrobe in public. It’s like those despicable, ritual humiliations that some parents use with corporal punishment: “Go get the paddle! … Bend over my knee! … Pull down your pants and bend over my knee!”
“I cried in front of her,” he says, outraged with himself. “I blubbered like a baby!”
Spontaneous regressions can happen to anyone in a wide variety of relationships, but I think certain profiles struggle with it more often: adults whose preponderant childhood experiences were skewed towards neglect, disrespect, and abuse. To this day, tall men with wide shoulders and deep, stern voices always awaken in my gut one or two butterflies who whisper, “Danger!”
Regressions are a common culprit in marital unhappiness. Suddenly, the man no longer sees a peer, a friend, a lover, a mate – he sees the critical mother! And he tantrums. He whines. He pouts. He turns passive-aggressive. He ‘forgets.’ All strategies guaranteed, by the way, to get your wife to act even more like a critical mother.
Or just as suddenly a woman will no longer behold her loving husband; rather, the disappointed father. The father whose job it is to tell her how she screwed it up. To tell her what’s wrong with her. The father to remind her that daddy knows best. Daddy decides about money. Daddy decides where and when we vacation. Daddy decides … about everything. I am the Great and Powerful Oz! So, she nurtures resentment. Becomes depressed. Abandons him sexually, because nobody wants to have sex with their dad. She spends. She eats. She’ll show him.
Regression is so uncomfortable, and patients tend to be immensely relieved just by me introducing them to the concept. It’s like, oh, I’m not crazy or ridiculous or stupid. This has a name. It happens to other people. It’s not uncommon. There are reasons for this in my psychic formation.
I ask the man to bring me a picture of himself at or around eight years-old. The next week I’m holding a picture of a boy in a baseball uniform. The baseball glove is bigger than this boy’s head. The smile is a jack-o’-lantern of freckles and missing teeth. He’s adorable.
I’m compressing a lot of work here, but, essentially I invite the man to love the boy. To advocate for the boy, especially when bullies are around. The man gets a firmer grip on his adult self NOT by rejecting or ignoring the boy, and certainly not by joining evil forces to hold the boy in contempt. No; the man stands more solidly in his adult self by honoring the boy’s innocence, his beauty, his vulnerability. By offering compassion for the boy’s fear, his shame, his painful aloneness.
The man frames the picture, and puts it on his work desk. Now, just before he walks down the hall to talk to Queen Bully Boss, he touches the frame and says to the boy, “I got your back. Don’t be afraid. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
(Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for this newspaper. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org).